If you’re a regular reader of this blog – thank you! – you probably already know that I read a lot of nonfiction. Almost seven years ago, I set myself the goal of reading one nonfiction book a month, and with the exception of one bad month, I have actually succeeded. It took some time, but it has actually become a habit for me to pick up nonfiction books as part of my regular reading. And it has been amazing. I have really enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone and learning about new things.
Since it is Nonfiction November, I thought I’d share some of the nonfiction books I think might make good picks for all you fiction readers. Whether you’re thinking about giving nonfiction a try, or just looking for your next nonfiction read, these are all great books to pick up!
If you like historical fiction…
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
If you didn’t already know, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – yes, the Frankenstein, “mother of science fiction” Mary Shelley – was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the “mother of feminism”. Clearly they are groundbreaking amazing women who gave us both women’s rights and the very first sci-fi novel. This biography covers both of them, and their various accomplishments. (Note: if you’re anything like me, you might feel like a total failure after reading this, but it’ll pass. Or you can just write a novel.)
In case you, like past me, thinks biographies are pretty dry and boring, I’d say you are not completely wrong on that count. But the three on this list are definitely not boring. Case in point: Mary Shelley lost her virginity to a married man… on her mother’s grave. This book definitely does not skimp on the spice. Bonus: it’ll give you more insight into two very well-known and influential authors (both of whom I highly recommend if you haven’t already read their work). This book definitely had the drama, the family conflict, the angst, the romance, and the heartbreak of any good historical novel. Plus, it’s about two very badass women, which is always fun to read in my book. Definitely one to check out if historical fiction is your go-to genre.
If you like suspenseful adventure books…
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I read this book just last month, and loved it. It’s been a while since I stayed up late reading, but this book did it. By the time I thought “I really should stop and go to sleep” there were still like ten people stranded at the top of Mount Everest, and I couldn’t just leave them there. This book is very hard to put down. It’s so suspenseful and riveting.
This is a first-hand account of the 1996 Everest disaster, in which a surprise blizzard caught several expeditions unaware, stranding people on their summit descent, and ultimately resulting in the deaths of eight people. Jon Krakauer was a journalist and experienced climber who just happened to have been on the summit of Everest the day of the disaster. I found his account really well done (he even admits to mistakes he may have made that day), and it felt like a good tribute to those who did not make it down the mountain.
If you like disturbing humor…
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
I think we can all agree that dead bodies are inherently not funny. But I still only felt a little bit bad about laughing while reading this book. Which is mostly about… you guessed it… dead bodies. I have read all of Caitlin Doughty’s books (the third one just last month), which should tell you how much I enjoy her writing. And while her other two books (From Here to Eternity and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?) are great, this one is my favorite.
Doughty just brings the perfect amount of humor to a dark subject and makes it actually fun to learn about. Unless of course you’re squeamish, in with case maybe don’t read this book. But if you want to find out what happens to your body after you die, this was pretty interesting. Despite how gross this book can be at times, I do still want to be cremated. Unless I can have a sky burial, because that’s cool, too.
If you like hard hitting contemporary…
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I have talked about this book so many times I feel like I’m just repeating myself. But it is absolutely worth reading. I read this over a year ago, and it has definitely stuck with me. You might know Chanel Miller as the woman who was raped on Stanford’s campus and was subsequently known as “Emily Doe” in the media. I will not name her rapist (but you have probably read his name before).
In this memoir, she reclaims her story and does it in such an eloquent and impactful way. I am not sure if she plans to write anything else, but if she does I will absolutely pick it up because her writing was truly that brilliant. She made a difficult story almost enjoyable to read. I think her incredible writing also made this more readable than typical nonfiction, so this book (and other memoirs) makes a great starting point for someone who doesn’t read much nonfiction.
If you like serial killer thrillers…
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Dark thrillers and true crime kind of go hand in hand. If you enjoy that kind of thriller, or even murder mystery novels, true crime might be the way to go when delving into nonfiction. Despite the fact that I watch a ton of true crime docuseries and documentaries, I don’t actually read all that much of it (something I do want to fix, though). But this one is absolutely one of my favorites. Really engrossing, and it honestly feels like a mystery/thriller written in first person point of view since the author was actually a blogger investigating the Golden State Killer while writing this book.
I read this right after the Golden State Killer was caught, and it was fascinating to watch that all go down at the same time I was reading this. Especially because many of the murders took place very close to where I live (two of the victims actually worked where I work). I think this is a great pick for anyone who likes to read about serial killers or just really dark books.
If you like mystery without the murder…
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
If you’re interested in true crime, but maybe not murder, this is definitely your book. You might have already heard about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the company that scammed a lot of people by selling the idea of quick and efficient blood test they couldn’t actually perform. And while what I heard about it in the news was a little bit shocking, the actual details in this book are just batshit crazy.
The drama and insanity that was going on behind the scenes was just beyond anything I would have expected having read about this story in the news. It was impossible to put this book down. It’s shocking and definitely sad for so many of the people involved, but fascinating to read about.
If you like reading beautiful imagery of fine art…
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
I feel like I don’t need to say too much about this one. We all know Leonardo da Vinci. Before reading this, I did admire him and his art. But after reading it, I had so, so much appreciation for his genius. He truly changed the game in so many ways and was just a brilliant man. I am a huge fan of Walter Isaacson’s biographies, and this one is definitely my favorite so far (his most recent about Jennifer Doudna, The Code Breaker, is a close second).
While the physical copy of this book does have printings of the works discussed in this book, I actually listened to this on audio and can attest to just how gorgeous and well-done the actual descriptions are. Sure, I’d listen to this in the car on the way home from work and then open up my hardcover and look at all the paintings I’d just heard about, but I honestly didn’t feel like I was missing a ton with just the descriptions. Plus, da Vinci’s life was incredibly interesting, so if you like his art and would appreciate some background info, this is a must-read.
If you like science fiction…
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
If you, like me, know that almost everything in The Martian is scientifically accurate, then you will probably enjoy this. I do not have a science/math brain. I studied history and literature in school. But I do enjoy learning about science things (math can go away). This book is the perfect science book for someone like me. It is astrophysics for people who are too tired to comprehend the secrets of the universe, but are still interested in learning something.
I’m sure if you think about reading a science book, it probably seems like a lot. Or just really dense. And I’m with you – I do not currently have the brain capacity for that. But that’s not what this book is. This book is simple enough to understand while still making you feel like a smart person. I am clearly very tired writing this, but you get my point. Astrophysics for dummies, but with a nicer title and a cool author.
If you like books with powerful female characters…
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
My friends can attest to the fact that I talked about Catherine the Great a lot while reading this book. I could not put it down. Which is saying a lot because, trust me, I know how dense (and boring) biographies can get. (I loved it, but Ron Chernow’s Grant took me almost a year to get through.) But Catherine’s life is so full of drama that you keep wanting to see what happens next. Seriously, if you have seen The Great on Hulu, it’s not actually that far off from the actual events, and that show is insane.
But in the middle of all the insanity is one seriously badass woman. There is a reason she is called “the Great”. She was smart and gutsy and truly unafraid to be herself (mostly in her later years after that pesky husband of hers was gone). She was not actually born into the Russian royal family, but she absolutely earned her spot as one of the greats. I probably fell in love with her a little bit reading this and I have absolutely no regrets. She was amazing.
If you like crazy drama…
Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir
In the years since I have read this book, I have jokingly referred to it as The Real Housewives of Medieval England. Because, dear reader, that is exactly what this is. Except more fun because this involves royal drama and kind of a lot of murder. You think reality TV is dramatic, I give you the woman who jumped out of a tower window – dramatically tearing away from the guards standing on her gown to keep her from leaving – because her horrible husband was making her attend mass. (To be fair, that particular tale was featured in the second book in this series, Queens of the Crusades, but you get my point.)
Honestly the best part of reading about the insane drama in this book is that it was all real. That makes this so much more fun to read. Alison Weir is a great historian who writes both fiction and nonfiction, so she has a lot to check out (I like her newer stuff a bit more, and loved her Six Tudor Queens series). I think the fact that she also writes historical novels is definitely a benefit to her nonfiction books, which though definitely dense, are very readable.
Alright, that’s it for this post! I hope you are all having a great reading month so far. I’d love to hear from you: are you reading any nonfiction this month? Do you have any books you’d add to this list?
And check out my bookshop, where you can buy books and also shop my curated collections of my personal favorites AND all of the books I’ve read for my reading experiments. Or you can just buy whatever books you want to. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, and you get to support your choice of indie bookstores – it’s a win all around!